In most fierce public debates, our tendency is to reactively occupy positions based on emotions, personal beliefs or media coverage. Rarely do we stop to examine all the nuances and diverse perspectives surrounding a given issue.

In ‘The Argumentative Indian’, Amartya Sen celebrates the historic roots of a society that has prized arguments in many forms. The word ‘argument’ is interpreted by most people as defending one of two opposing viewpoints, although Sen’s definition would embrace a much broader multiplicity of voices and opinions. But with the national elections ratcheting up emotions, and with many people being forced into combative ‘for’ or ‘against’ positions, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine if issues are being reduced to simplified polarities with hardly any space for more nuanced middle ground.

Take the Environment versus Development debate, for instance. While pro-environmentalists are often projected as anti-growth, the pro-development lot are similarly buttonholed as being anti-environment. But some people who are exposed to the complexities and nuances of the debate, would tend to occupy a middle ground, perhaps shunning particularly harmful projects where human and environmental costs outweigh economic benefits but supporting less harmful projects whose impact can be redressed by technological or social means.

After all, most humans would agree on the need for unpolluted air and water, and for the long-term viability of the planet. But many would also champion change and economic progress. Isn’t tempered growth, with built-in checks and balances, also an option? Does India have to mimic the American trajectory or can we chart our own unique path, taking into account new knowledge about global warming and its long-term impact?

Similarly, there are people who are either “for” subsidies being given to lower-income groups and those who oppose it on several grounds. A few dissenters, belonging to both groups, would like to reduce the inequality in opportunities and incomes but disagree on how best to approach it. But given that social scientists are studying the impact of subsidies (a recent article in the Outlook titled “The Other India” examines the impact of welfare schemes in various states), perhaps a more reasoned middle ground would agree that we need to continue subsidies that have led to significant gains in health, educational and poverty alleviation outcomes, and abandon or redesign others that have not worked for various reasons. During this process, we need to ensure that voices of targeted popula-tions are not drowned out by louder middle and upper-income voices.

In a book titled ‘Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most’, the authors (Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen) argue that some conversations do tend to become emotionally charged because the issues involved threaten not just our viewpoints, but our very identities. In the recent controversy surrounding Wendy Doniger’s book, ‘The Hindus’, some members of that community felt that their core belief system and way of life were being challenged by a ‘foreign’ author.

Ironically, Doniger was attempting to enrich Hindu scholarship by capturing the stories of women and lower castes, voices that have been typically exorcised from mainstream religious discourse. But browbeating the publisher to ban and pulp the book is hardly an enrichment of our argumentative traditions. Such actions are a setback, not only for scholarship on any sensitive topic, but also for the tenor of discourse in India today. A more acceptable response would have called for the author’s opponents to publish and even promote their contrary viewpoints without necessitating the destruction of Doniger’s work.

There are, however, some topics that do not lend themselves to a middle ground. And these are also conversations that we need to engage in, if we want to move forward as a society. Take the issue of gay rights. Again, there are many people who believe that their religious or cultural values are being threatened by laws that support gay rights. On the other side, those who believe that all differences should be celebrated and endorsed would argue in favour of a more liberal position even if it does not resonate with a majority viewpoint.

In such conversations, more people might be won over if they would attempt to first understand opposing viewpoints and the life experiences that help shape them. The authors of ‘Difficult Conversations’ argue that this entails shifting from a position of certainty to a position of curiosity. Listening and understanding alternate viewpoints can help transcend scripts already playing in our heads.

Besides our proclivity for combative stances, certain media formats also tend to encourage snap judgments and simple opposition. For instance, to increase their TRP ratings, many discussions on TV channels are infused with the emotions of the TV anchor.

While Arnab Goswami might be the most well-known performer in such TRP-spiking shows, several other anchors are following suit to draw audiences. Frequent shouting matches on TV are likely to push viewers to unthinkingly occupy positions that support or oppose the outraged anchor. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook which do not provide enough space for longer and more reasoned arguments, also lead to quick conclusions and easy ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ rather than forcing us to dwell on more complex greys. It is challenging to project nuances in a world of limited attention spans, and more so when messages have to be limited to 140 characters.

As Daniel Kahneman very evocatively argues in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, changing your mind about something or understanding a complex, logical argument involves effortful, conscious attention – an increasingly scarce commodity in our harried, multitasking lives. He further stresses that the mind often tricks us into intuitive judgments that might be false. This may be an apt time to slow down, to reason and reflect, and arrive at considered judgments before exercising our franchise.

Brinda Narayan has worked for fifteen years in the corporate...